The good When both Marco Polo and Lonely Planet sing your praises, you must be doing something right. The 13th century adventurer described Sri Lanka as the finest island of its size in all the world, while the 21st century global travel publisher named it the best country to visit in 2019. Not bad, as endorsements go. Known as Ceylon until 1972, Sri Lanka has crept under the mass-tourism radar for decades. Thailand received more than 38 million visitors in 2018; Sri Lanka made do with a paltry 2.3 million. But when it comes to beaches, the Isle of Serendib easily holds its own. The southwest coast is a 150km stretch of almost uninterrupted palm-fringed sand that changes its name every few kilometres and, weather-wise, now is the best time to explore the region. Sri Lanka’s first motorway, the E01, links the capital, Colombo, with the city of Galle , which means you can be lounging on a sunbed beside the Indian Ocean in no time. And these are no ordinary strips of sand – many have featured in “world’s best” polls. There’s Narigama, a broad swathe of beach and glassy turquoise surf not far from the popular resort town of Hikkaduwa. And a few kilometres along the coast is Unawatuna; an idyllic sweep of blond sand, set away from the main coastal road and overlooked by a hilltop Japanese peace pagoda. Between the two is Galle, a historic trading city (gems, spices, ivory) enclosed within a historic fort that was built by the Portuguese, reinforced by the Dutch then captured by the British. Life in the narrow streets continues much as it has for centuries. Administrative offices, courts and schools buzz with activity, churches mildew in the humidity and restaurants lure locals and tourists who have worked up an appetite by strolling the 16th century ramparts. The beaches become quieter the further you get from Colombo. Tour buses pause at Weligama so that passengers can take photos of the stilt fishermen perched on wooden poles in the sea. A 10-minute tuk-tuk ride brings you to Mirissa, another world-class strand of sand where the main draw is whale watching. Whichever boat operator you choose, you’re almost guaranteed to catch a glimpse of blue whales, Bryde’s whales, dolphins and turtles. The last stop on the southwest coast is Tangalle. Tourism here is in its infancy and lovers of deserted ribbons of sand will be in their element. So will seafood fans. A smattering of modest eateries prepare fresh-off-the-boat delicacies as well as more traditional fare. Food becomes spicier the further south you travel on the Indian subcontinent and, by the time you reach Sri Lanka, dishes have a tongue-tingling intensity. Rice and curry are the ubiquitous standbys although you never quite know what you’ll be served until umpteen bowls of dhal, sweet potatoes, green beans, sambals and poppadoms materialise at the table. The bad Sri Lanka’s beleaguered tourism industry has toiled against adversity for decades. The 26-year civil war, which ended in 2009, and the 2004 tsunami both discouraged visitors. Then on Easter Sunday 2019, churches and hotels were bombed by Islamist extremists , killing259 people. Tourism, on which 2.5 million Sri Lankans depend for their livelihoods, was decimated. Holidaymakers have written off the entire country, much as they did during the previous periods of conflict and tragedy. Yet the southwest coastline, like many other areas, remains perfectly safe to visit. Before the attacks, campaigners were warning that Sri Lanka was focusing on the quantity rather than quality of visitors. There were also claims that haphazard tourism development was having a negative impact on the island’s natural beauty. Now the teardrop-shaped island is grateful if anyone shows up. Complaints about Mirissa’s whale-watching trips used to centre on overcrowded boats but that’s hardly likely to be an issue for the time being. A bigger concern is that operators regularly break maritime laws by speeding and getting too close to the giant mammals. Mirissa attracts a young crowd, which is great if you want to party, but if you prefer to get to sleep before say, 4am, choose the location of your accommodation wisely. Or stay a tuk-tuk ride away, in Weligama, where the scene is far more tranquil. With so few sightseers around, the stilt fishermen are struggling to make ends meet. More accurately, genuine fishermen are probably doing OK out at sea but the unemployed youths who pose, fishing rod in hand, for tourists, aren’t getting many tips at present. Sri Lanka has quite a reputation for con men and tricksters. Well-dressed locals approach tourists with a cheerful, “Recognise me? I’m the chef at your hotel. How about a coffee?” Bear in mind that ordinary Sri Lankans aren’t natural extroverts and are unlikely to walk up and introduce themselves. Anyone with the charisma of a game-show host who bounds over and asks which country you’re from is probably up to something. The huge waves that attract surfers to Sri Lanka also lure tourists into the water. Problem is, many aren’t used to the strong currents and heaving swells and are soon out of their depth, in more ways than one. There were an estimated 1,100 drownings nationwide last year and the southwest coast is a notorious black spot. Drowning is the second leading cause of accidental deaths, after road accidents. Sri Lankan bus drivers race impatiently through villages at top speed, belching clouds of exhaust smoke, overtaking on blind bends and swerving wildly at the last minute to avoid traumatised tourists. Hikkaduwa may have a gorgeous beach but you’ll take your life in your hands each time you cross the coastal highway to reach it. The Rough Guide accurately sums up the situation: “As a pedestrian you’re at the very bottom of the food chain in the dog-eat-dog world of Sri Lankan road use.” The ugly The Pearl of the Indian Ocean has a serious rubbish problem. Beaches, including those along the southwest coast, are littered with debris and high levels of microplastic pollution. According to one report, the beach at Weligama is Sri Lanka’s most contaminated.